One of the biggest mistakes a job hunter can make is to undervalue the importance of writing a great cover letter.
Cover letters aren’t meaningless etiquette–mere gift wrapping on your resume or the cover on a TPS report; rather. They are a crucial tool for showcasing your skills, competency, writing ability, and dedication to the prospective job. Most importantly, the cover letter is a vehicle for grabbing the employer’s attention and prompting them to explore your application in greater detail.
As such, a cover letter is almost never an “optional” component of a serious job application, regardless of whether the employer requires it.
So, what does it take to write a great cover letter–one that will distinguish your application from thousands of others and land you an interview? Here are some tips:
Do your research
Research the organization’s goals, mission, and history. Dig deep through the company’s website and review their social media accounts. Learn as much as you can about the organization’s current needs. The more research you do the better, as this step informs how you will craft the rest of the cover letter.
If possible, address your cover letter directly to the decision maker at the organization–the person who makes the call on new hires. The right contact will vary depending on the job and the organization; it could be the person you would report to if hired, or the Executive Director, or the head of human resources, or someone else entirely. Make an educated guess on who is the best point of contact.
Start with a bang
Open your cover letter with an attention-grabbing statement or question that will hook the reader. There’s no need to lead with your name and your interest in the job; your name is on the bottom of the letter and you wouldn’t be applying if you weren’t interested! Check out this collection of creative cover letter introductions.
Be a problem solver
In an eloquent manner, explain how your experience and skills can be be an asset to the organization. Don’t just repeat bullet points from your resume; instead, repackage your background and skills into a customized narrative that shows how you can solve current organizational needs. In practice, this means that each application you submit should have a cover letter unique to the needs of the prospective employer.
Always use the active voice. (Is this confusing to you? Here’s a primer on active vs. passive voice.)
Imitate your audience
You should always try to imitate the language and style used by the employer in their formal communications. Review the company’s website, press releases, annual reports, and other publications to learn key buzzwords and phrases. Most importantly, make sure your cover letter includes language and keywords pulled from the job description. Doing so will help your application pass through automated hiring software.
Watch your language
Avoid repetition, slang, jargon, and cliches. Your writing should be straightforward and to the point. Remember, overly flowery language can turn off a reader just as easily as bad writing.
Follow the rule of three
Try focusing on three key points ideas (each contained in its own paragraph) and three sentences per paragraph. This will help keep your cover letter focused and concise. In general, a cover letter that extends beyond a single page is a red flag that you may be rambling.
End with an ask
The cover letter and resume are tools to help you get an interview. As such, remember to close your cover letter by formally asking for an interview! Provide your contact information and offer to follow-up with the employer.
Follow the instructions
Of course, the one rule that preempts all the suggestions above is to follow the application instructions in the job post. Employers often include very specific instructions as a way of vetting candidates. Make sure you thoroughly read the the job description and follow the employer’s requests, even if they run counter to cover letter best practices.